St. Peter's Basilica
The crisis exposes an underlying sin: a self-referential church structure that promotes its own welfare over the community it’s meant to serve.

On January 1, 2019, the Pope released a strong letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The pope has addressed the worldwide crisis of clergy abusers and secretive bishops in speech and writing repeatedly. By his own admission, he’s made some painful mistakes, in misplacing his loyalty and emphasis. In his latest appeal, Pope Francis directed our U.S. bishops, on retreat in seclusion at that time, to pray and discern a gospel-inspired new way forward.

The pope uses terms that are helpful for future dialogue. He refers to the “culture of abuse”: not just thousands of incidents of pedophilia by church leaders but the whole landscape of secrecy, self-defense, and organizational entrenchment that multiplied the harm and deflected the damage. The pope doesn’t call for policies or protocols anymore. He wants a reconsideration of who a bishop is in relationship to his people. Francis demands a reassessment of power in the church that will seek to exhibit the “flavor of the Gospel”—not the boardroom.

The pope rightly names the “crisis of credibility” the U.S. church faces in this generation. He doesn’t name the twin crisis of relevance that naturally goes with it, but it’s there underneath. This present crisis has erupted over the pain and outrage we all feel for children betrayed and abandoned by our religious leaders. But it also exposes an underlying sin: a self-referential church structure that promotes its own welfare over the community it’s meant to serve.

Addressing this deeper failure requires a sea change in our present leadership model. A week of seclusion won’t effect this kind of transformation, but it can awaken sincere hearts to the need to pursue such conversion as aggressively as our leaders once sought to preserve the church’s reputation. The pope aptly notes how “spiritually abandoned” and “disheartened” faithful Catholics now feel, laity and clergy alike, in recognizing how our bishops chose to “defend spaces” over children and families.

The pope is summoning a different model of church to come into being. It’s an enormous undertaking that our bishops can’t undertake alone. We must do this together if it’s to be done, which will require a conversation we’ve never had and can scarcely imagine. It will require using a word Francis doesn’t use in his letter: shame. Our children were forced to carry shame in secret for so long. We all bear it in the open now.

Scripture: Mark 10:42-45; 11:15-18; Matthew 26:31; 1 Corinthians 12:26; 13:1

Books: Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, by Donald Cozzens (Liturgical Press, 2004)

Clericalism and the Death of Priesthood, by George B. Wilson, S.J. (Liturgical Press, 2008)

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